Who Was Traherne?
Thomas Traherne was born within the walls of Hereford City in about 1637, close to All Saints Church, where he was probably baptised. He was about five when the Civil War came to the city. He may have been at Hereford Cathedral School in 1649 when King Charles I was beheaded. In later life he wrote of the King as martyr.
In 1653, in the midst of the Commonwealth, he went to Brasenose College, Oxford, one of the most puritan colleges, gaining his BA in 1656. But he could find no one who would teach him felicity – happiness, which he wrote of as ‘the mistress of all other sciences’. And so he returned to Hereford. In 1657 he was appointed Rector of St Mary’s Church Credenhill, 5 miles NW, supported by Presbyterian clergy who were preachers at Hereford Cathedral. With the Restoration, and the return of King Charles II in 1660, he sought ordination. With no Bishop of Hereford, he journeyed to Launton near Bicester to be ordained by the exiled Bishop of Oxford, on 20th October 1660.
At this time he was finishing one of his first works, Select Meditations, containing thinking which had developed through England’s darkest days. In it he sought to ‘teach Immortal Souls the way to Heaven’. This underestimated manuscript did not come to light until it was found in Birmingham in 1964. It was finally published in 1997, and has remained in print.
He continued writing poetry and prose throughout seventeen years as a parish priest, but it was not until 1673 that he had a book published – Roman Forgeries. In 1674 he finally left Credenhill for London to become domestic chaplain to Sir Orlando Bridgeman (former Lord Keeper of the Great Seal) at Teddington. There he prepared his last work for publication – Christian Ethicks: The Way to Blessedness. In the Autumn he died, and was buried on 10th October 1674 in St Mary’s Church, Teddington. Christian Ethicks was published within months, but neither of the two printed books attracted much attention, and he was forgotten for over 200 years.
Much of his hand-written poetry was rediscovered in the nick of time: on a street bookstall in London in the winter of 1896-7, together with a work which many have thought his finest – his prose Centuries of Meditation’ published in 1908. (The poetry was published in 1903). The writer Edward Thomas wrote of Traherne, in his book Wales (1905), as “that fine poet of the 17th Century”. He quoted his poem about childhood, ‘Eden’: ‘A learned and a happy ignorance / Divided me / from all the vanity / …sloth, care, pain and sorrow that advance the madness and the misery of men.’
Major discoveries of other unknown handwritten works have followed. The Commentaries of Heaven, an encyclopaedia of happiness, was rescued from a burning rubbish tip near Wigan in about 1967 by a man looking for spare parts for his car. And in 1997 five more works were found in Lambeth Palace Library by Professor Jeremy Maule, including his major work The Kingdom of God. These have all now been published. 1997 also saw the discovery of The Ceremonial Law at the Folger Library in Washington DC by Julia Smith and Laetitia Yeandle. This is an unfinished poem of some 1800 lines based on Genesis and Exodus.
Traherne’s writings have now been recognised by some as urgently needed in the turmoil of modern life, but inaccurate information about him has bedevilled his rediscovery. He has also been misinterpreted surprisingly frequently over the last 100 years. In particular his view of evil and sin was sometimes seriously underestimated. Nor has Traherne’s view of happiness always been grasped, and he actually suggested in his Centuries why this would happen:
‘One great Discouragement to Felicity, or rather to great Souls in the Persuit of Felicity, is the Solitariness of the Way that leadeth to her Temple. A man that studies Happiness must sit alone like a sparrow upon the Hous Top, and like a Pelican in the Wilderness. And the reason is becaus all men Prais Happiness and despise it. Very few shall a Man find in the Way of Wisdom: and very few indeed that having given their Names to Wisdom and felicity, that will persevere in seeking it. Either he must go on alone, or go back for company. People are tickled with the Name of it, and som are persuaded to Enterprise a little, but quickly draw back when they see the trouble yea cool them selves without any trouble. Those Mysteries which while men are ignorant of it, they would give all the Gold in the World for, I have seen when Known to be despised’.
[Centuries 4. 13]
On the flysheet of the book found in Lambeth Palace Library, someone had written:
'Why is this so long detaind in a dark manuscript, that if printed would be a Light to the World, and a Universal Blessing?'
Richard Birt 2006 (amended 2015)
One of Tom Denny's inspirational Traherne windows situated in the Audley Chapel in Hereford Cathedral